Happy Merdeka Day!
Merdeka means independence. At midnight on August 31, 1957, Malaysia became an independent nation rather than a British colony. Merdeka Day commemorates this independence. (We were told, however, not to confuse Merdeka Day with Malaysia Day. Malaysia Day happens in mid-September, but I’m not sure what it commemorates.) Merdeka Day is celebrated at Merdeka Square, the home of the world’s tallest flagpole, with a ceremony and a parade. I guess there are usually fireworks at night, but they were cancelled this year in remembrance of the Malaysian Airlines flight that was lost.
We arrived in Malaysia on Friday, August 29. Merdeka Day was on Sunday. The parade started early, 9am, and we thought it would take about 30 minutes to travel there via the LRT (light rail system) from our hotel. We wanted to go, but we were also sensitive to our jet lag. We decided to set an alarm for 7am and if we were ready to be awake and moving we would head to the parade, otherwise we would just keep sleeping. “Lucky” for us, we were both wide awake around 4:30am! Time to start the day! We finished unpacking, lounged for a bit, got ready to go, enjoyed being some of the first people at breakfast, and then left for the square. At 8am on a Sunday, the city hadn’t woken up yet. If you have never walked around a busy city early in the morning, you are missing out on a truly special experience. I highly recommend it. The sense of tranquility where there is usually hectic activity…there’s just nothing like it. Almost makes me want to get up early every weekend. Almost.
We overshot our intended LRT station and walked about a half mile to the next one. (As it turns out, you can enter from inside the mall at the Petronas Towers. Now we know.) For single ride passes, they use a plastic token like a small poker chip. I assume it has an RFID chip in it, because you hold your token to a receiver on the turnstile gate and it opens to let you through. When you reach your destination, you drop the token in a slot to exit the station. We acquired our tokens and followed the crowd onto the train. It was packed! People were standing shoulder to shoulder throughout each car. Some cars were so full they could not accommodate even one more person. We crammed ourselves in and kept our hands in our pockets and on my purse. There were “Beware pick pocket” signs everywhere. Just the thing to encourage us on our first public transit experience. (We have been very vigilant and very lucky so far. Knock on wood.) As we reached the stop for Merdeka Square, we thought “How will we know which way to go? Of course! We will just follow everyone else!” So we did, and it’s good we wanted to go that way because I’m not sure we could have gone anywhere else.
There were vendors selling everything you can imagine: plastic horns, balloons, little toys, Malaysian flags, head bands, t-shirts, food, drinks… The parade started with a ceremony of some kind. There were dance performances and some speeches, presumably commemorating Malaysia’s history. We don’t know because we haven’t learned enough Malay. So far, this has been the only thing that was completely inaccessible to us as monolingual English speakers. From where we were standing, we could kind of see the square where the performances were happening but we could see the giant screens and hear the loud speakers; as the parade passed by us we could see it through the crowd as well. It was actually a great vantage spot.
I was expecting some cultural displays during the parade: floats or other community groups marching. We learned that there are
11 13 different Malaysian states, so I was expecting perhaps representatives of the states or something. There were a lot of marching bands and a lot of military groups. A LOT of military groups. It was a whole different nationalistic model, not the one I was expecting based on my experience with U.S. July 4th parades. No cute little kids dressed up as Uncle Malaysia, or whatever their nationalist figure is. No local politicians marching with “Elect me!” signs. Just bands and military. One other surprising thing about it was how prevalent women were in these groups. I was not expecting to see so many women in uniform. (We aren’t sure if there is some kind of compulsory service or not.)
We decided to leave the parade a little early to get a jump on the crowds at the LRT. As we were walking back through the vendors near the train station, there were probably 15-20 teenage boys on bikes. They had Malaysian flags on their handle bars or streaming behind their seats, and they all were blowing on toy horns. Now this was more in line with my expectations for an independence day celebration! They all hung around for a few minutes, and then by some signal that was invisible to us, they all took off as a group to have their own parade. We did beat the crowd back to the train and as we got off at our station, we heard the boys on bikes pass by us (still blowing the horns) and saw a couple of jets do a fly over. Even though most of what was said was inaccessible to us, it was a great way to start the year in Malaysia.
Here is a video of the ceremony and here is one of the parade. Both were taken with our regular camera, held high above Micah’s head. Apologies for any shakiness, but I think both are worth it regardless.
Here are more pictures of the ceremony and parade.